The Trouble With White Women: An Interview With Kyla Schuller

The Trouble With White Women: An Interview With Kyla Schuller

The Trouble With White Women: An Interview With Kyla Schuller

The author and academic explains the racist history that haunts our politics.


White women have been the source of much consternation. After helping to vote Donald Trump to the White House, nearly two-thirds of white women in Alabama cast their ballots for accused sexual-predator Roy Moore—though, thankfully, it wasn’t enough to hand him a Senate seat. One of the most groundbreaking responses to this widespread embrace of white-supremacist misogyny came from an unusual venue: the blog of an academic publishing house. The author, Kyla Schuller, is not a political scientist or pundit, but a professor with a background in literary theory. Her Duke University Press blog post, “The Trouble with White Women,” illuminated the eugenic underpinning of the categories that we use to describe the world. She showed how according to 19th-century race science, nonwhite populations were not considered evolved enough to develop sex difference: Real women were, by definition, white. The trouble with white women, she argues, is that this racist history still haunts our politics—on both the left and right.

Schuller has her PhD in literature, but her interests and expertise range widely across disciplines; she now teaches in the star-studded Women’s and Gender Studies department at Rutgers. She’s written academic articles about the history of plastic surgery, race in Moby-Dick, the relationship between settler colonialism and fossils, microbes in the context of the state, and the sentimental politics of James Cameron’s Avatar. (She’s also an advocate for women suffering from late-stage neurological Lyme disease.) “It’s this contemporary fantasy we have, that there’s literature over here and science over here,” she explained when The Nation sat down with her.

Schuller’s most recent book, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, is an argument against this divide and others. She points to where 19th-century ideas of race and sex as biologically determined persists; without understanding this history, our struggles against racism and sexism today are incomplete. Schuller’s book is a truly original academic work, but it’s also a crucial intervention into contemporary politics.

—Nawal Arjini

Nawal Arjini: Your book is about how 19th-century understandings of race, gender, and science affect our understandings of those concepts today. Could you say more about those legacies, and how you got into thinking about this?

Kyla Schuller: I started this project because I was looking into W.E.B. Du Bois. I found that he was using scientific frameworks to ground his arguments about racism and empire. His seeing science as an ally in a fight against racism was quite a surprise, because what we know about 19th-century science, especially in the US, is that it was a practice that institutionalized racism. It was about inventing and implementing ideas of dramatic bodily difference.

I started with the research question: “What is this history of anti-racist science that he’s drawing on?” The idea that 19th-century biological thought, social reform, and political thought were dominated by people trying to apply Darwinian ideas of competition and survival of the fittest to the social world has been overblown. The key figure was actually [French naturalist Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck, not Darwin, in setting up ideas in the 19th century about how biological growth happened. The 19th century was very invested in the idea that social reformers could manipulate evolution and that race actually marks a differential capacity to evolve.

NA: Could you say a little about Lamarck?

KS: Lamarck’s idea is that acquired characteristics can be transmitted to the next generation. The classic example he gives is that giraffes have long necks, because they’re always reaching upward to treetops for food. He also gives the example of the human penis.

NA: Really?

KS: It’s never cited, which I think is a missed opportunity. He argues that when you have a repeated sensory impression, a rush of fluid gets sent to that organ, enlarging that organ. Over time, that organ is going to get bigger, and the new size of that organ will get transmitted to the next generation.

People really embraced this idea that if they change the experience of the present generation—especially children, who are thought to be more plastic—that it would not only change their bodies, but would change their inheritable material and the generations after them. Race, and racial difference, was understood as the differential capacity to be plastic. Whiteness was fully malleable, fully capable of progress or decline, and blackness was at the opposite, barely plastic except for maybe a few years at the beginning of youth. This is the underlying scientific framework that holds children as key leaders for managing the racial body of the future.

This really matters now, because Lamarckian ideas are coming back. Epigenetics opens the idea that experience affects expression. It’s really important to look at the politics of that idea, and how easily that idea folds in with a eugenic fantasy that we can engineer the future by manipulating the experiences of children. I was actually thinking about writing a piece for a place like The Nation earlier this summer.

NA: Oh, really?

KS: I was mostly thinking around the framework of children as the front lines of state racism. We can see continuity from 19th-century orphan-train project, which removed Irish-American kids from east-coast cities, to the off-reservation boarding-school movement, which removed tens of thousands of Native American kids from their families, to child detention camps that the Trump administration is running. These projects that try to manipulate the racial makeup of the nation often take children as their primary targets, which is something I hadn’t fully realized until seeing Trump reinvent that formula.

NA: You write about places where this legacy of 19th-century thought exists in the present day. You begin by describing a Black Lives Matter meme, “Black lives > white feelings.” Could you tell us about that example?

KS: Black Lives Matter is directly challenging the disposability of black bodies and black lives, and specifically how emotion and physical sensation is part of how we imagine how bodies function differently and deserve different rights. One of the ways of seeing how this idea plays out, which started in the 19th century, was that racialized bodies don’t have the same sensory capacity as white bodies.

NA: They don’t feel as much.

KS: They don’t feel as much—they’re not as sensitive to pain, and therefore they’re not capable of the kind of refinement that civilization is. Civilization is understood as an emotional reflection after a physical sensation. By saying that racialized people don’t feel sensation the same way, you not only legitimate abusing a labor force, you also can make the argument that these bodies are not capable of progressing and are not capable of mental reflection. Their feelings remain brute, animal sensations. We see the pervasiveness of that idea in a recent study at Duke of medical students: The question was, “Do you think black patients feel less pain than white patients?” Sixty percent of first-year medical students argued yes, they see black patients as less capable of pain than white patients. That’s an example of the longstanding impact, not just of the idea that white emotions matter more, but on this really fundamental level, black bodies are less capable of sensation.

NA: Could you define “biopower” and “biopolitics” for us?

KS: “Biopolitics” believes that the best way to manage the nation is to maximize the quality of the population. The way you regulate the population is by choosing the bodies that will thrive, and choosing things like public-health projects or education incentives that will enable those bodies to not only survive but to optimize.

At the same time, biopolitics is about identifying other bodies as threats to the nation that will contaminate the success of the population as a whole and are therefore marked for disposability. In the contemporary world, we can see how police treat black subjects who they kill as fully disposable. In the child detention camps, the children of immigrant families are marked as disposable to the nation and to their own parents.

NA: One of the fiercest arguments you make in the book is that womanhood is a very recent fiction created for very specific purposes. You write, “‘Woman’ represents a tactic of risk management”—can you explain what you mean by that?

KS: I’m building on arguments that black feminist theorists made in the 1980s that gender is a racial structure. Womanhood is not a universal category, but instead is an aspect of whiteness that was positioned by definition as unobtainable for nonwhite women, specifically black women. I looked at the scientists who were inventing and codifying the idea of sex difference in the 19th century—not just the cultural role of gender, but the idea of physiological and anatomical sex difference, the binary of a male and female body. These folks argued that full sex differentiation was only achieved by whites. No other races have achieved the level of evolutionary specification where they were able to differentiate between the distinct roles of men and women.

This is super-surprising, because we assume that the idea of male and female as two opposing categories is universal—at least in Western thought. But before the 19th century, male and female bodies were described as more alike than different. For example, in the 18th century, the vagina was often described in medical textbooks as an internal penis. It’s not arguing that bodies are identical, but it’s arguing a fundamental similarity.

In the 19th century, one of the things that emerged was the idea that male and female were fully different capacities and bodies at every level. It’s helpful to imagine the idea of “male” and “female” as racial categories—not just as gendered roles but as actual physical, anatomical, and physiological difference. This suddenly makes projects like white feminism in the 19th century extra-suspect, because many white women were only arguing for the rights of white women—“woman,” in that sense, is part of an overdetermined category of whiteness.

Of course, there were white feminists who were arguing against that, and black feminists were trying to expand the category of womanhood itself, but it helps explain some of the reasons why liberal feminism still does such a terrible job accounting for race, because to some degree their idea of woman itself has always been elaborated as a quality of whiteness, not a universal quality of people.

NA: You write that 19th-century physicians had this idea of the responsive vagina—the idea that if you were raped, the child of that rape would have a vagina that was hostile to contact. I was struck by how similar that was to the slogan “pussy grabs back,” and how weird a circle that is. Could you put this new focus on the vagina in context?

KS: I come from a feminist and queer generation that’s really committed to trans rights and trans politics as part of a larger queer feminist struggle. A lot of us are trying to figure out feminist politics that’s not genital-centric; owning certain genitals doesn’t qualify you for feminism. This is especially for trans and non-binary folks, but also for feminism itself as a project that’s open to cis men. There are ways rhetorically that things like sexual assault are positioned as things that happen to vaginas. One in four women are sexually assaulted in their life in the US, and one in six men are. There’s much more similarity than difference between men and women in who is victims of sexual assault. But that’s not how feminism has framed it. In part I think that’s because of our unfortunate genital-focused framing.

NA: You wrote that people still talk about how race and gender as culturally conditioned, but that these ideas have revitalized, rather than dismantled, the ways that the categories of race and gender control our lives. What is this process?

KS: This is one of the more controversial parts of the book—although more and more people are seeing limits in the framework that’s been dominant in gender and ethnic studies: that race and gender are fully cultural constructs, meaning that they are entirely social inventions with no link to the material body.

NA: You get raced by society, you’re not born as a black person.

KS: Right. Race—in terms of categories like Native American, white, black, etc.—is clearly a fiction. However, our emphasis on ideas of race and sex difference and gender difference as being entirely invented by our social structures has had clear drawbacks.

We need ways to understand how power difference materializes in bodies over time. A body is in constant interplay with its immediate environment. Drastic social inequality materializes in the flesh as illness, as depression, as anxiety, etc. We need ideas of race and gender that understand life as a process of dynamic interplay between biological and social processes. When we only look at the social, we have no way of explaining horrifying statistics—in Oakland, there’s a 28-year life expectancy discrepancy between poor and rich ZIP Codes. Same is true in Detroit, same in St. Louis, same in Baltimore. Rates of autoimmune illness among women are six times than that among men. Rates of anxiety and depression are double among women as men. Our framework of race in ethnic studies and gender studies only emphasizes the social, and so we don’t know how to talk about how social experience writes itself into the flesh.

NA: Because of this new popularity of social constructionism, people have a good idea of how gender is flexible, fluid, changes over time—but the idea that genital difference is similarly flexible is a tough pill for many to swallow.

KS: There have been feminist-science-studies scholars making this point for a long time—particularly the Brown University biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, who’s done a lot of important work on intersex conditions. [She showed] that about 1.7 percent of the population is intersex, and has made really powerful arguments that a better system of categorizing sex would have five sexes, not two, to more fully account for biological diversity.

One of the things that Fausto-Sterling has argued is that, before the 19th century, the category of intersex was seen as a much more common condition. In the 1840s and ’50s, physicians and biologists started to define a so-called “true hermaphrodite” as only someone with both ovarian and testicle tissue. That’s super-rare, but there’s lots of other kinds of intersex conditions. In the 20th century, we’ve understood chromosomal sex, hormonal sex, the shape of gonads—there’s six different components to biological sex. With six components, any of those can misalign within one body at any moment. But “intersex” got redefined 150 years ago as only being the presence of both types of gonadal tissue. That’s a super-narrow category, and it makes all the other bodies fall in the realm of, “OK, this one’s a female, and this one’s a male,” when in fact they challenge the logic of sex.

Fausto-Sterling helps us understand that sex is not a binary; it’s a dimorphism. A binary means two distinct bell curves with a huge gap in the middle. She gives the example of great danes and chihuahuas: There’s two bell curves and no overlap. That’s a binary. A dimorphic pattern is two bell curves that overlap. In that middle category, it’s shared—a body can be in either category but physically indistinguishable from the other. She gives the example of labs and German shepherds. Generally speaking, they fall into these distinct types, but there’s a huge middle area. That’s actually how sex works—there’s a big middle overlapping category.

Our failure to realize that means that folks like Caster Semenya, a spectacular runner, is being so heavily policed and barred from her sport, because the governing sports bodies are sticking to a binary version of sex, instead of a dimorphic one which understands that there are bodies that don’t fit to the extreme ends of the bell curves.

NA: In the 19th century, there were examples of hyper-sexed black women, like Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman who was exhibited in 19th-century freak shows as “the Hottentot Venus.” African women like her were notable for their sexual differentiation, both from white women and from men. How does that fit into this framework?

KS: It’s a good example of how a proper binary sex difference was seen as only a property of whiteness. Many nonwhite women’s bodies, especially African women’s bodies, were positioned as being in excess. But a lot of the sex difference was articulated not at the physical level but at the mental and psychological level, and that’s usually what race scientists said that non-hite people hadn’t achieved. They would point to things like the fact that many nonwhite women in the US and elsewhere worked. That showed their civilization hadn’t evolved “the angel of the house,” who takes care of the private sphere, and the male, who governs the public sphere. Of course, there are the obvious reasons of colonialism and capitalism for why white bourgeois culture came to imagine that womanhood was defined by protection from work, including making invisible the work of child-raising.

NA: You mention in the book that the nature/nurture debate is way older than I thought, and has a lot to do with this phenomenon. Could you speak a little bit about this debate, and the shifting political valences on one side or another?

KS: That’s kind of my obsession. The person who coined the phrase “nature versus nurture” is the same person who coined the phrase “eugenics”—Sir Francis Galton, who is so important in the development of science in the 19th century. That idea that he coined, that there could be such a thing as nature removed from nurture, was a brand-new idea in the 19th century.

It’s part of that fantasy of dividing and categorizing the world that science undertook, and in particular this fantasy that white civilization had achieved mastery over the biological body, that it had actually liberated itself from the body. Of course, one of the ways that it did this was through sex difference. Part of what sex difference does is to saddle white women with all the qualities of biological existence and create a fantasy of the disembodied white male who is pure mental capacity and potential.

That idea that you could call something “nature” and that you could identify it is super-new. In the 20th century, we’ve been stuck in this idea that “nature,” our innate characteristics, evolved independently of our environments. That is a really significant political move, the idea that the human cultural world is not part of nature.

NA: In some parts of the book, you seem down on the possibilities of American feminism, because it’s all about cis whiteness—not only that it doesn’t acknowledge the experiences of people that aren’t cis and white, but because it comes out of this 19th-century history. Do you think that’s a fair assessment, and do you see a way out of that?

KS: I’m very invested in feminism and gender studies; it’s why I’m delighted to work in a gender-studies department. I think that gender studies as a project should be working to dismantle our core categories of gender and sex, much like ethnic studies as a project dismantles those of race. Often, that hasn’t been the case. Often, gender studies has worked to reinforce the idea of sex and gender difference. I’m with many other scholars, especially younger students, who want to use gender studies to question some of its own presumptions.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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